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Exploring the Healing Power of Nature in Therapy: Benefits and Strategies

Updated: 4 days ago

Woman reading Morning Altars Book
Morning Altars Therapuetic Nature Based Art
Feeling part of something much larger than the self is music to our ears. This transformation of the self brought about by awe is a powerful antidote to the isolation and loneliness that is epidemic today.” Dacher Keltner, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life


As a mental health profession for more than 25 years, I have extensive experience and training in a number of therapeutic modalities and holistic practices. This past year I have been taking a somewhat unusual dive as a psychotherapist and trauma specialist into learning about nature-based therapeutic art called Morning Altars (c).


Nature based therapies are beginning to emerge and taking form within the field of psychotherapy. I am excited to see how this will begin to unfold and become more common in the not too distant future. There is more research identifying the benefits of nature, art and less traditional talk therapy methods. As more information continues to identify the vagus nerve and factors of well-being, we are also seeing more inclusions of nature in these studies and conversations.


Nature Based Therapies offer some unique ways of working within the tremendous waves of transformation our world is navigating. Nature has far more experience in being with these changes that our limited human years. While not a form of art therapy, or psychotherapy, I would like to share a little more about Morning Altars(c) and also thinking about Nature Based Therapies.


Morning Altars as a form Nature Based Therapy?

Morning Altars book and woman on yoga mat
Holistic Practices of Nature, Yoga and Embodiment

In September of 2023 I began facilitator training in Morning Altars Certification course. This is certification through Morning Altars founder Day Schildkret, world-renowned artist, author and ritualist. T


Morning Altars as a practice involves three pillars of practice - Nature, Art and Ritual. Under these pillars is a 7-step practice although many times teachings will generally spotlight one of the 7-steps (Wonder/Wander; Place; Clear; Create; Gift; Share; Let Go) .


To briefly address the Facilitator Training Program, this has involved five weekends of 16 hours of trainings; weekly practicums, monthly group practicums, practice teachings and numerous hours of self-study. These are deep dives into understanding of various ritual and cultural practices, learning about respect and integration of ethical nature based practices, as well as creative arts and practice.


And it has transformed my life as both a person and a healing professional. I have found reconnecting with my "safe enough" ventral vagal spaces has refueled me, addressed issues of burnout and has provided motivation through my own ongoing aging and other very human experiences.


The Morning Altars Terminology can be something of a mystery within the field of mental health professionals. Words like "altar" and "ritual" and "impermanence", is not the vernacular of my Polyvagal, EMDR Trauma world. And I will admit my own discomfort with those words. Day is deeply intentional in words and a large part of our study involves etymological explorations of words and concepts. So while I want to respect his terminology and also offer some of my own thoughts and translations within my personal practice .


Within our psychological field, we have a long history of looking at the role of spiritual and psychological. Carl Jung, founder of Depth Psychology is my first thought of the bridge of this type of work. Jung deeply studied and widely utilized the "mandala" as a model of Self and "wholeness," These practices have a wide application, spiritual and religious history within many Eastern traditions.


Diagram of Morning Altars Practice Pillars
3 Pillars of the Morning Altars Practice

There is also Fritz Perls, founder of Gestalt therapy who offers us the lens of "the whole." Somatic and Sensorimotor therapies also bring forth the mind-body and the integrative, in their models of embodiment and somatic regulation.


Nature-Based Therapy Process appears to be somewhat new. In their Six Step Model of Nature-Based Therapy Process, Oh, et al. identify these 6 components: Stimulation, Acceptance, Purification, Insight, Recharging and Change.


Morning Altars is not specifically a Nature Based Therapy Model. However, it does contain most of the components of such a proposed type of model when facilitated by a trained and licensed therapist. Morning Altars is not specifically a Nature Based Therapy Model. However, it does contain most of the components of such a proposed type of model when facilitated by a trained and licensed therapist. At minimum, it is what would be classified as a Nature Based or Earth-Based Therapeutic Art.  


NATURE: Potential Benefits of Nature Based Therapy


Boy curious about an insect
Nature Opens Curiosity

We have lost our connections within nature and are navigating ecological crisis. Research demonstrates the positive associations between nature exposure and improved cognitive function, brain activity, blood pressure, mental health, physical activity, and sleep. Results from experimental studies provide evidence of protective effects of exposure to natural environments on mental health outcomes and cognitive function. Cross-sectional observational studies provide evidence of positive associations between nature exposure and increased levels of physical activity and decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, and longitudinal observational studies are beginning to assess long-term effects of nature exposure on depression, anxiety, cognitive function, and chronic disease. Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8125471/


From a polyvagal perspective, nature based therapies may engage the ventral vagus nerve and expands our container of resources via support. With support, our body-mind has improved capacity for processing the painful changes that come with impermanence, trauma and grief/loss.


In their article "The Complex Construct of Wellbeing and the Role of Vagal Function", Wilkie, et al., attempt to propose a definition of "Well-Being" that identifies the vagal component of connection. They state " if we were pressed to define "well-being" in a single word, we would suggest the word connection, which encapsulates (1) self-connection, (2) social connection, and (3) nature connection." (Wilkie L, Fisher Z and Kemp AH (2022) The Complex Construct of Wellbeing and the Role of Vagal Function. Front. Integr. Neurosci. 16:925664. doi: 10.3389/fnint.2022.925664), t

Morning Altars Pillars Benefits of Nature
Benefits of Nature

In Morning Altars, the Nature Pillar is understanding our relationship with nature is about reciprocity, mindful awareness, embodiment and connection. The reciprocal component is as we engage with the benefits of nature and nature engages within us. We become mindfully aware, embodied and open into curiosity and wonder and wandering. Nature becomes a guide and conduit creativity, beauty and wholeness, a resource of connection.


Connection builds our capacity to be with transformation and the thresholds of change. The fear, the grief and the trauma begin to heal and re-form new pathways as we re-pattern with natural materials in a Morning Altars Workshop or session.


ART: Art as a Nature Therapy

Morning Altars Pillars of Practice - Therapeutic Art
Therapuetic Art Benefits

Therapeutic Art is art that allows for relaxation, stress-reduction, release of emotional tension, through self-expression, learning through creating (with your hands/tactile), and self-reflection. Earth-based art has been performed since the beginning of time. There is something organically unique about this practice. There are affiliation through every spiritual tradition and therefore the roots of psychology. Carl Jung in the most famous within the psychological world in his study of mandala and also the developments within the field of sand tray therapy. As I am not an expert within these fields, I want to be respectful and not further comment on this possible relationship.


What I love about Morning Altars practice is there is no "artist requirement". While the book Morning Altars demonstrates the incredible talent of this artist, it is really about the practice. The therapeutic art occurs in the process of the practice. There are meanings within the shapes used, the materials, the process and as we bring our questions and intentions into the art-making process.


The art form created is called an "altar" or what Day also calls a map of meaning. I prefer the later term as this coincides more with the concept of a mandala. An "altar" simple means to 'raise something up", or call into our attention for finding meaning and attuning/attending to this information/material. It is the same intentionality, or even mindfulness practice or in yoga practice of the sankalpa intention.


The act of creating is a ventral vagal activity. Our ability to engage in art is a self-regulating opportunity. Story, voice are not limited to the physical voice and the release of the voice can occur through our highly innervated hand-eye movements. And there is all the sensory integration that occurs in the sights, sounds, smells, textures of the natural material.

“If wondering is a dance, then questions are its choreography. Good questions move you. They connect you to that which” Day Schildkret, Morning Altars: A 7-Step Practice to Nourish Your Spirit through Nature, Art, and Ritual

RITUAL: Rituals and Nature Therapy

Morning Altars Pillars Ritual
Benefits of Rituals

We know the power of rituals. They are the practice of building meaning-filled habits. Rituals have long been associated and conducted in nature. Rituals can be practiced as an individual or in community.


Typically there is a least one witness in a ritual, or what Day calls "with-nessed" enhances meaning and transformation.


We know our nervous system prefers structure and patterns. When we engage in meaningful habits this can contribute to ventral vagal and social engagement activity. In this Morning Altars practice, these habits offer as little or as much social engagement desired. One way is through the sharing of the beauty or nature piece with the facilitator, or even through social media. In our practicum, this is referred to as harvesting. And through the practice of sharing, we integrate meaning of the art and the process of making the art-form.


CONCLUSION: Strategies to Integrate Nature Therapy

Yoga in nature as therapy
Nature Based Yoga Practice

EMDR therapists. Consider how nature might be invited into your sessions. For those EMDR therapy practicing intensives and extended sessions. Morning Altars is a wonderful adjunct opportunity to incorporate the powerful benefits of nature and can help regulate in the midst of an EMDR intensives session. These can be offered and processed in virtual spaces and there is a directory of facilitators on the morning altars website. Please note that the majority of practitioners are paraprofessionals. Though there are also a number of therapists like me working through this certification.


Yoga and embodiment communities, nature can be integrated into class and workshops offerings. Integrating movement along with the above therapeutic benefits of nature incorporation. As a RYT I am able to offer online or in person workshop incorporating both of these modalities.


Employers. Morning Altars can be teambuilding, burnout prevention, grief/loss, as well as various thresholds. Again, consider how nature might be a source of connection and well-being within the occupational environment.


My hope is this blog has helped you explore ways of incorporating some nature, therapeutic art and/or ritual into your own daily life or to consider as a practitioner. If you are interested in booking a therapeutic art session or workshop please reach out and contact me.


If you are interested in the Morning Altars Events or Practicum, more information can be found at morningaltars.com 


 

By: Julie Cardoza, LMFT, RYT, ISTT, EMDRIA Approved Consultant

Disclaimer: This blog is written for educational purposes only and is not offered as treatment or advice for any physical, mental health, financial or legal purposes.




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